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Navigating Personal Tragedy in "Slaughterhouse-Five"

In the spring of 1969, Kurt Vonnegut published his science fiction inspired novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an American prisoner of war captured after the Battle of the Bulge that occurs during the final phases of the Second World War. Pilgrim is being held in captivity in Dresden when the Allied forces firebomb the city in February 1945 and, in doing so, kill thousands of civilians. The estimates of casualties range from 35,000 to 200,000 and Pilgrim only survives the bombing by taking refuge in a meat-locker beneath the slaughterhouse where he worked. The novel is semi-autobiographic in nature — Vonnegut lived through the Dresden bombing himself as an American serviceman. Slaughterhouse-Five is his first-hand account of the horrors he witnessed during the war, as well as his only avenue of making sense of the experiences.

Considering Slaughterhouse-Five as an autobiography is not simply an assumption based on Vonnegut and the protagonist’s shared experiences. In an overt display of metafiction, the first chapter of the book takes us through Vonnegut’s participation in the war as well as the thought processes behind the eventual writing of Slaughterhouse-Five. During the novel, Vonnegut’s voice is discernible behind that of the narrator and on occasion he explicitly announces his presence to the reader; “That was I,” he says, “That was me. That was the author of this book.” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.103). In her article ”'All This Happened, More or Less’: Making Sense of the War Experience Through Humor in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and ‘The Sirens of Titan’", Rosemary Gallagher rationalizes the self-reflexive elements of the book as Vonnegut’s “cathartic fictionalisation of his war experience” (Gallagher, 2012, p.73). Writing the novel is his way of processing the trauma of his past, as he identifies himself with Billy Pilgrim’s war experiences and features as a character in his own novel.

Figure 1: Vonnegut's artwork from 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

The first chapter of the novel lengthily describes the futile protests of war novels and Vonnegut’s own reluctance to write of his experiences — he calls his own novel a ”failure” written by a ”pillar of salt” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.18). In the face of this apparent futility, readers may wonder why Vonnegut chose to write Slaughterhouse-Five in the first place. Peter Kunze, in the article ”For the Boys: Masculinity, Gray Comedy, and the Vietnam War in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’” (2012), writes that despite his hesitance, Vonnegut recognises a need to write about his experiences. The bombing of Dresden was a tragedy, and the need for reflection on the loss of life outweighs the difficulty Vonnegut faces in revisiting these memories. Becoming the voice for those who no longer have one, Vonnegut accepts the necessity of writing a book like Slaughterhouse-Five; ”Vonnegut is aware that, as a survivor, he bears the burden of memory: a responsibility to the perished to tell what happened” (Kunze, 2012, p.47).

The novel is not just an expression of the author’s perceived burden as a survivor. Vonnegut makes it clear throughout that the book’s purpose is also to reiterate the importance of history being told by those who have experienced it first-hand. In his narrator’s autobiographical first chapter, he evaluates the Dresden Bombing within the context of a history that is unreliably told by those who benefit from its inaccurate recounting. In his article ”I Can’t Tell If You’re Being Serious or Not”: Vonnegut’s Comic Realism in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’" (2011), Ryan Wepler argues that Vonnegut presents the chroniclers of history as self-interested and subsequently questions the reliability and objectivity of established historical facts. The novel’s narrator describes walking through New York’s World Fair and seeing what the past had been like ”according to the Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.15). Wepler explains that ”Though Vonnegut focuses primarily on the obfuscation of reality by cultural systems and ideals, he also emphasises the dearth of available facts surrounding the historical events his novel describes” (Wepler, 2011, p.100).

Figure 2: Panels from the comic adaptation of 'Slaughterhouse-Five' adapted by Ryan North with art by Albert Monteys and colour by Ricard Zapala.

The accurate historical recounting of the Dresden bombing is of key concern to the author, an issue he unambiguously refers to later in the book when noting that in twenty-seven volumes of Official Air Force History, there was no mention of the Dresden raid ”even though it had been such a howling success” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.157).Therefore, through these concerns, Vonnegut establishes the ”need for a history told by those who have experienced it rather than those who stand to profit from the manner of its retelling” which ultimately culminates in the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five (Wepler, 2011, p.100).

Although written about the Second World War, Slaughterhouse-Five was released halfway through the Vietnam War (1969) and seems to question the constant cycle of war as a broad scope. Kunze points out the relevance of the novel’s alternate title — The Children’s Crusade. The Children’s Crusade was a thirteenth century campaign by European Christians that exploited bands of youth in the attempt to establish a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The children ended up being sold to slavery in Tunis, which Kunze views as ”a fitting metaphor for both World War II and Vietnam War as thousands of young men were compelled to fight for a cause that ultimately let them alienated and adrift.” (Kunze, 2012, p.44). Vonnegut denounces militarism for the sheer trauma it exposes young men to who—just like protagonist Billy Pilgrim— spend the remainder of their lives suffering.

Figure 3: Gustave Doré’s 1877 engraved drawing of the 1212 Children’s Crusade

Billy Pilgrim recounts the story under the illusion that he has been kidnapped by aliens and subsequently experiences time travel. His non-linear narration of events reflects his undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was not recognised as a mental disorder at the time of writing. He advocates for the alien Tralfamadorians’ philosophy that humans have no free will, when in reality Billy now finds life meaningless because of the things he witnessed during the war. The war not only desensitizes him; it also traumatises him.

Vonnegut’s appeal is universal in that he does not advocate only for those who fought in the same war as him, or the young men then fighting in Vietnam: he also advocates for the young men ”who fight and ignite the wars of tomorrow” (Kunze, 2012, p.48). He recognises that openly opposing the war is futile — in the first chapter he compares writing an anti-war novel to writing ”an anti-glacier book” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.3). Nevertheless, he emphasizes the adverse treatment of young men and the impending consequences on their livelihoods as they become ”listless playthings” manipulated by governments to fight preventable wars (Vonnegut, 1991, p.134).

Figure 4: Illustration for Susan Lardner’s 1969 review of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five'

Throughout the novel, Vonnegut utilises humour to get across his scathing message. He characterises war as needless and thus absurd and humour becomes the only available outlet. Cruelty and humour are entangled and their boundaries collapse. When German soldiers find Billy Pilgrim and his comrade Roland Weary in the creek-bed, Roland is about to kick Billy in the spine. The Germans cannot understand the unnecessary violence between the Americans, nor can they comprehend Billy’s reaction of uncontrollable laughter. For Kunze this moment encapsulates Vonnegut’s perception of war: ”violent, ill-advised, and absurd. Billy’s laughter is a sign of comic relief in the face of such absurdity and the only response that seems rational” (2012, p.49).

Black humour becomes a key element in the depiction of war as irrational in Slaughterhouse-Five. The serious accounting of harrowing events is confounded by Vonnegut’s use of whimsical language. Freezing American prisoners of war are affectionately referred to as ”frowsy creatures” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.79). This comic technique obstructs the reader’s ability to focus on the tragic narrative. Moreover, Vonnegut intentionally undermines the seriousness of events in the casual, informal tone he employs to describe such experiences. Vonnegut opens the novel by declaring ”All this happened, more or less” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.1). His seemingly careless tone undermines the severity of events and diminishes their moral significance in the eyes of the reader. The most explicit example of this is in the protagonist’s adoption of the Tralfamadorian fatalistic philosophy.

According to Billy, the Tralfamadore aliens subscribe to a pre-determined way of thinking whereby they believe that all events are subject to fate and destiny, the most noticeable result of which is a resignation in the face of future inevitable events. They teach Billy that he should not question why things happen, he should simply accept them. Tralfamadorians are also able to view all points on the space-time continuum, and so death has no significance to them. Billy aligns himself with this worldview and no longer gives any meaning to death: ”Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes'” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.22).

Figure 5: 'So It Goes' Literary Journal Cover

Kunze argues that Vonnegut reduces Billy to comic relief in an effort to dissuade the reader against such a passive stance: ‘As we laugh at Billy, we must confront out own activity/passivity, challenging the narrator’s damning evaluation of humans like Billy Pilgrim as “listless playthings” (2012, p.52).

Vonnegut connects this Tralfamadorian passive acceptance to those who sanctioned—through inaction—the Dresden bombing. When Billy is in hospital, he meets a professor writing a book about the bombing of Dresden, of which he states, ”It had to be done” (Vonnegut, 1991, p.163). This is a direct echo of the Tralfamadorian response to the inescapable end of the universe:

“Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”

“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”

(Vonnegut, 1991, p.163).

By frankly discussing the bombing of Dresden as an atrocious military act against innocent civilians, Vonnegut’s novel becomes a humanistic plea in favour of individual thought and action. Kunze sees Slaughterhouse-Five as a ”humanistic endeavour to save this population from the disingenuous rhetoric of the American war machine as well as the dehumanising effects war has on the individual subjected to its terrific reality” (2012, p.54). Vonnegut frames humour as the only sane response to the absurdity of war, but he also utilises it to mobilise the readership. The black humour he employs is unsettling and the undermining of our expectations calls attention to the irrationality of war: ”To this end, humour works to not only amuse, but to awaken and (ideally) mobilise the so called 'listless plaything' to resist the forces that work to deny the subject his or her agency” (Kunze, 2012, p.54). In the cathartic retelling of his own past experiences, Vonnegut dissuades readers against passivity in the hopes that future generations will not face the same horrors.

Bibliographic References

Gallagher, R. (2012).All This Happened, More or Less’: Making Sense of the War Experience Through Humor in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and ‘The Sirens of Titan.Studies in American Humor, 26, 73–84.

Kunze, P. (2012). For the Boys: Masculinity, Gray Comedy, and the Vietnam War in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'. Studies in American Humor, 26, 41–57.

Vonnegut, K. (1991) Slaughterhouse-Five. London: VINTAGE

Wepler, R. (2011). ‘I Can’t Tell If You’re Being Serious or Not’: Vonnegut’s Comic Realism in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'. Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, 17(1), 97–126.

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Megan Maistre

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